When discussing famous artists, their careers and lives often take precedence. Art historians are fascinated with the emergence of new styles and how famous artists found their niche in a world that rejects and stifles radical ideas. As such discourse permeates the art world, the final years of an artist’s life are often disregarded. As an artist ages, their art changes, shaped by their traumas, illnesses, and the effects of an aging body. Therefore, there is an incredibly rich discourse to be found in an artist’s final work. An artist’s final tribute to their artistic career is a poignant sense of an individual’s emotions in their final years of life, a final farewell to a rich, expressive life. Here are some of the most powerful and harrowing final paintings by well-known artists, completed shortly before they met their untimely (and often tragic) ends.
Georgia O’Keeffe, The Beyond (1972)
Georgia O’Keeffe was most known for her free-spirited style, which was a fusion of various movements and mediums throughout her life. The “Mother of American Modernism” notably painted nature, including sensual and magnified flowers. Her paintings explored the relationship between the body and nature, often being deemed erotic and inappropriate by her male counterparts. The natural world was intrinsic to O’Keeffe’s personal and artistic life, so it is not surprising that her final mark on the artistic world was a natural landscape. O’Keeffe’s final unassisted painting, The Beyond, was completed in 1972, 14 years prior to her death at the age of 98. Suffering from macular degeneration, she was unable to paint as she had before. However, her failing vision did not impact her desire to create. In 1977, she wrote, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.”
The Beyond is a simplified and abstract landscape, and the location is ambiguous. O’Keeffe had lived in many places throughout her life, experiencing the wonders of the American Southwest and New York City regularly. Thus, the landscape of her final painting is not specified, yet simplifies a universal force of nature that transcends beyond location. The painting spotlights a black tone in its bottom half, with blue tones throughout the top. A bright white streak bisects the blue sky and water. The horizon extends and seems to ask, “What comes next?” As such, this piece is a meditation on the magnitude of human existence and a recognition of the impossible notion of what follows death.
Frida Kahlo, Viva la Vida (1954)
Frida Kahlo is one of Mexico’s most legendary figures. Her self-portraits and portrayals of Mexican culture provide a glimpse into her personal and artistic identity. However, Kahlo spent her life plagued by illness and disability, having lived with pain from polio, a bus accident, and multiple surgeries including a leg amputation. However, Kahlo’s final creation juxtaposes her life of pain and malady—a colorful conclusion to an otherwise insipid circumstance. Completed eight days prior to her death at the age of 47, Viva la Vida, is a still life of watermelons. In Mexican culture, watermelons represent vitality and fertility. They are frequently used as offerings to the dead in the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration. Once the fruit is gone, the seeds of the watermelon represent a new life that will branch into an eternal life cycle. Thus, Kahlo’s final tribute to her life is filled with lively symbolism and color. Kahlo inscribed a final message on one of the watermelons, “Viva la vida” or “Long live life”. Days before Kahlo’s death, she wrote her final journal entry: I hope the exit is joyful - and I hope never to return."
Interestingly, Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, who was reported to have been devastated by her death, painted watermelons as his final painting in The Watermelons (1957). Despite the couple’s tumultuous relationship, the pair of paintings is a reminder of their everlasting spiritual bond.
Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape with Grave, Coffin, and Owl (~1835)
Caspar David Friedrich, creator of the iconic Romantic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, lived an incredibly tragic life before his death. At age 17, Friedrich’s mother, brother, and two sisters had all died. He had watched his youngest brother drown in a frozen lake, with some sources suggesting that the young boy had died trying to save Caspar David from the ice. Thus, the artist was tragically familiar with death from a young age, which impacted his later life and artistic career. As Romanticism faded from fashion and Realism emerged as the newest prospect, Friedrich was left in poverty. He was viewed as a melancholy and eccentric figure by those around him and lived in solitude. The same year that Friedrich created his final piece, he suffered a stroke, leaving him with minor limb paralysis and limited ability to create his art.
Friedrich’s final painting is a sepia depicting an owl perched atop a closed coffin, surrounded by shovels in a barren landscape. Owls have long symbolized death, as the Romans believed they were ominous symbols of imminent death. Other cultures believe owls have the ability to see the deceased in the afterlife. Friedrich’s final work is a reminder of the looming presence of death and the inevitable and tragic end he was all too familiar with.
Edward Hopper, Two Comedians (1966)
20th-century artist Edward Hopper portrayed iconic imagery of American life in his work, which featured isolated figures and barren streets. However, his final piece is a stark contrast to his life’s work. Bernard Chambaz, author of the 2019 book The Last Painting writes, “So often a painter of absence, here he [Hopper] depicts a presence, but it is the presence of those who are about to disappear.” Both Hopper and his wife, Jo, were in their eighties and ill at the time of his last painting. Hopper passed away two years after its completion and Jo the following year.
Two Comedians is Hopper’s final farewell to a career of portraying isolation and commonplace. In it, the artist and his wife gracefully bow from a stage, dressed in 16th-century garb as if performing a Shakespearian comedy. In contrast to his recognizable portrayals of noncommunicative couples, the couple in Two Comedians join forces as they say their final farewell to the crowd. In the piece, Hopper seems to accept life’s ironies and celebrate the folly of the human experience.
Keith Haring, Unfinished Painting (1989)
Keith Haring has had a profound impact on pop culture. His raceless, genderless pop art figures are easily recognizable and transcend the language of exclusion and hate in an effort to expand humanism and love. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, Haring worked endlessly to provide funding and visibility to AIDS patients through the Keith Haring Foundation. His art was used during the last years of his life to generate awareness for the condition, which was highly stigmatized. The same year of his diagnosis, Haring pondered, “Amazing how many things one can produce if you live long enough. I mean, I've barely created ten years of serious work. Imagine 50 years.… I would love to live to be 50 years old.”
Unfinished Painting is a visualization of a life cut short at the age of 31 from an epidemic that the government was doing little to prevent or treat. Purposefully left unfinished, the piece is a reminder of a short, yet prolific and revolutionary career. It is also a reminder of the countless unnamed lives that have been lost from the AIDS crisis.
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